Promoting consumption of edible insects in Laos may help boost protein-anaemic diets, say health experts trying to create regional health standards for insect production, harvesting and consumption.
Working with the Laotian Health Ministry, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched an “edible insects project” in Laos in 2010 with a two-year budget of US$475,000 to boost insect production and harvesting for consumption.
Scheduled to end in April 2013, the project aims to provide poor households with an affordable, culturally-acceptable, protein-rich food complement. It has trained 120 farmers to breed house crickets, weaver ants and palm weevils (common edible insects of choice among Laotians), as well as mealworms which had only been used as animal feed but FAO now wants to introduce as human food.
Weaver ants are semi-bred on trees before they are fed additional food, while the other insects are bred inside special containers at the National University of Laos in the capital Vientiane.
However, there has been a problem with data collection, said Vansilalom Viengxay, acting head of the food and control division in the country’s Health Ministry. “The Ministry of Health has very few data on the edible insect project because FAO is the owner and the relevant body on the edible insects’ project.”
If enough data is gathered about edible insects (from the project, nationwide, or other edible insect projects worldwide) ministry representatives will present the information at the FAO/World Health Organization Coordinating Committee for Asia (CCASIA) meeting due to take place in Tokyo on 5-9 November 2012. The committee recommends international standards to the two UN agencies on “products of interest to the region” that may have an international market.
Nationwide data on edible insects are scarce, said Purushottam Mudbhary, FAO’s representative in Laos. “There is no codex alimentarius [international food standards] for insects yet and the problem is that there are not enough data on insect trade because most insect trade is informal.”
FAO studies have shown insects are a protein-rich digestible source of food for people as well as feed for chickens and fish, said Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at FAO’s Forest Products and Industries division in Rome.
One hundred grams of grasshopper meat contains 20g of protein, which is only 7g less than an equivalent portion of beef, while 100g of the common house cricket contain four times more protein than the same amount of chicken, according to FAO.
Based on the most recent government figures available from 2009, almost half of children under five and 56 percent of pregnant women in Laos had anaemia - most commonly caused by iron deficiency - qualifying the situation as a “severe” public health emergency, according to the UN Children’s Fund.
Insect nutrition depends on “what insect is being eaten, the manner in which the insects are cooked and the daily requirements needed for the individual based on size and age,” said Patrick Durst with FAO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok.
In Asia insects are not eaten as a regular and substantive source of protein - as with chicken, fish or tofu - but more commonly as snacks, he added.
Weaver ant eggs, crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas are the most frequently consumed insects in Laos, according to FAO. A 2010 national survey by the Vientiane-based Institut de la francophonie pour la médecine tropicale said 95 percent of Laotians surveyed reported eating insects harvested in the wild and some 87 percent said they would eat more insects if available.
The Lao government has no plans to continue the project once FAO funding ends, Somchit Akkhavon, deputy director-general in the Health Ministry’s Department of Hygiene and Prevention as well as project director of the edible insects’ project, told IRIN.
“Edible insects are not a priority for the Ministry of Health or for the Ministry of Agriculture. Keeping the knowledge and the tradition are important, but there are no plans for taking over the project. While some [insect] farms might continue to operate on their own terms, others might have to shut down due to the end of funding.”
As interest and cash wane in Laos for edible insects, academic interest elsewhere in entomophagy (the consumption of insects) grows. A group of biologists from Imperial College London recently formed a group called Bugsforlife “to understand the potential of edible insects as an environmentally friendly solution to malnutrition in impoverished regions,” wrote one of its members, Mariangela Veronesi.
The group recently completed fundraising to work with the Wama community in the West African country of Benin “to understand how they traditionally gather, sell, cook and consume insects… In addition, to avoid the risk of over-exploiting natural stocks of edible insects in the case of the expansion of this practice, we shall devise methods for insect breeding that can be applied locally and in other communities.”